Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Big Surprise

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                              (Photo Credit: Garry Winogrand)

We were heading out to Lake Winnatchee when I got a call about a party on Rinehart Road. The reception was sketchy but it sounded like Amy. The address matched. They have the best parties, what with the moneyed and the mad hiding out in the woods. I knew Karin and her folks well enough so I changed directions and floored it.

“What are you doing, man?” Janna narrowed her eyes and sulked. “The lake and a bonfire sound a lot better to me. The Winslows aren’t even that friendly.”

“It’s Saturday night. Why not check it out?”

Janna gave me a look. She likes plans. I like spontaneity and sped up. Her hand smacked my thigh so I backed off a little.

The trees were dense, the night thickening with darkness. Every now and then someone would speed by and honk, blares lingering. In Marionville it isn’t easy to go unrecognized, especially when you drive the only red Camaro.

“Everybody seems to know you, Tony,” Mick said. “Did you play football or something back in the day?”

“It’s the ‘or something’,” Janna answered for me. “First football, then just playing. That was well before me.”

Mick snickered. I could see his “thumbs up” in the rearview mirror.

If only he knew. Mick was Janna’s visiting cousin and a minor smartass. I was one of those guys who made a wrong turn, then got spun around. Too much business late nights, the kind that attracts cops. A couple of jail visits and I was cured. Or you might say Janna happened. She’s the sort of person who finds the best in people but won’t let on until she’s impressed by at least one thing.  We met three years ago–she’s from a town down the road. I definitely proved myself by expanding my family’s marine business. And she has talents, good at photography. She can flush out and shine up people’s true characters.

Mick rolled the window down. The autumn night was musky but sweet. Mosquitos were not yet gone and would cruise along with us if I slowed down, then buzz on in.

Janna craned her neck at Mick. “Roll the window back up. There’s the beach where we’re not having a bonfire, where Tony almost proposed but got cold feet.”

Mick snapped my shoulder. “You need to rectify that. You both passed twenty-one a long time ago.”

Jana grunted. “One more year. Then I’m leaving town.”

“She’s off to seek her fortune in the wedding photo business. Detroit, watch out,” I said.

“Well, it won’t be my own wedding pictures that make my name.”

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I down-shifted and turned left. Cars were parked along a curve, a line that snaked a distance. The Winslow house was blazing and we could catch a few strains of music. A live band, maybe. We parked at the end of the row and got out.

“So, Tony, why do you think we can crash this party? What if it requires dress clothes? Look at us.”

I hesitated. Janna looked excellent in red pants with black sweater. Her boots held a sheen under the street lamp glow. I always wore chinos; dad required it and I hadn’t changed. Mick was more ragged in jeans and jacket. We’d know soon enough if we got in.

The front door looked taller and wider. I hadn’t recalled it being a deep red, but it had been awhile. I rang the doorbell and they rang out in a bass voice. It opened wide and we could see to the back of the house. Well, to the crowd. A short, balding man just stood there, drink in hand, smiling at us. His free hand caught the door frame for balancing.

I held out my hand. “Tony Arnell, Russell’s son. May we come in?”

“Of course! Come in and check out the fun. I will go in search of more sustenance. Oh, Carl here. Have the Ford dealership.” He shook my hand and moved on.

“He had a tux on, Tony!”

“We can go around the side yard to the back.”

“No, that’s too sneaky. What was this supposed to be for? Should have brought my camera!”

Carole Winslow scurried past the open door, disappeared, then came back. Amy’s mother, the hostess, full of good will.

“Tony Arnell! And…is it your girlfriend… Janna, right? Come on in–if you dare!” She looked us over, a gaze like a magnifying glass, then smiled her toothsome grin. “Never mind. It’s after ten thirty. Everyone is long past caring. My fiftieth birthday. I invited your folks but said they were off to somewhere else.”

Amy walked by with someone on her arm and waved. I returned the greeting as we stepped in.

“Chicago”.

“Well, so much better!” Carole shut the door and turned to a well-wisher.

We slipped through the crowd and made for the food, drinks and music. The band was good, though it played old standards, not my choice. Janna grabbed cheese and a sparkling water; Mick grabbed a drink and headed toward the band.

“Nobody cares. We’re just Marionville, not New York.”

She ate and watched, took a swig, then looked at me with those deep-set grey eyes. They were like the lake in winter but shot full of warm currents. “Well, let’s join the throng on the dance floor.”

I was never voted even a good dancer but how could I turn down a woman who used words like “throng”? This was a large couple of rooms and the music echoed. I danced reluctantly, if moving most parts of my body qualifies. Several people greeted us, mostly known. Everybody looked giddy and didn’t comment on attire. I hoped Carole was happy with fifty.

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After a few minutes we danced ourselves out to the veranda where citron candles flickered. We shivered and stood closer, leaning against the low stone wall. My eyes roamed over the scene. I wondered if they had sung “Happy Birthday” yet. I could sing better than dance.

And then, there she was, like a hallucination or a dream.

Champagne-colored dress to match her hair, which was in her trademark upsweep. Her body swinging, her fingers snapping, eyes averted as she disappeared inside the music. The dangling earrings must have weighed a ton. As if she felt my stare, she looked at me. She stopped, patted the arm of the man opposite her and took her time coming over. It all slowed down, her walk, the dancers and the song. I started to go back in but couldn’t figure out how to avoid her so turned around and looked over the lawn–could we jump the wall?

I could smell that luxurious, sweet, decadent scent before she got there. It hovered, a warning. I waited it out.

“Tony, Tony, Tony.”

Janna spun around but I turned only when I felt I had to.

“Gilly McHenry. What are you doing way over here in little Marionville?”

Gilly’s lips plumped like a big pink peony. “I am about to live here. Can you believe it?” She flashed a smile at Janna.

I started and blinked, then Janna stepped away from me.

“My girlfriend, Janna Baker.”

Gilly slid her hand across the space between us and floated in closer. Janna took it, then let it fall. Said “hello”, then frowned.

“You’re going to live here? Off the beaten path?” I almost stuttered like a kid.

She laughed, that famous raucous sound hammering my nerves. “I am about to marry Neil Hendron. The real estate guy? Met him at a nice party in Traverse City and we hit it off. Imagine that–I told you I wasn’t long for single life!” She chortled. “I wondered if we would ever meet again, Tony, my boy.”

“Again?” Janna’s voice sliced the air in two. Her head turned to me. “Did I know that, my boy, and just forget?”

Gilly took my other arm. “Sure, Jan. We had a summer awhile back. A Traverse City summer fling, right? I think he was twenty-one. Or younger. But he was singing karaoke like a pro! This one’s got some pipes, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Janna said. Her eyes were going grey to charcoal.

I put my arm around Janna. “But, still, Marionville? This guy doesn’t live up here year-round, does he?” Please say no, I thought.

“No, just summers and week-ends. So I could see you on the  slopes this winter, right? If I get any good at skiing!” She fiddled with a stray strand of hair at her ear. “We might marry here, though. Something different. You should meet him.” She looked over her shoulder. “He’s quite a talker.”

I could feel Gilly’s perfume latching onto me, settling in. I worried that it would attract more mosquitoes. Her glow dimmed a bit but her eyes were still a shocking navy blue. Janna was biting her lip, not a good thing.

“Gilly,” I said, holding out my hand to her. “I’m glad you found the right one!”

Then we turned away from the woman with the spell-casting perfume, down the back steps and toward my car.

“Who is she?” She asked. “Wait. It has to be a bad story.”

“It was that summer when you helped your sick aunt in Ohio, remember?”

“Well, six weeks, enough time for trouble, right?”

Then she put her hands alongside my face and said, “Despite your lapse in good taste, I love you, anyway.” She leaned against the Camaro. “I wonder if I can photograph her wedding? She’d make a great picture!”

“So. Will you marry me?”

Janna’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Whoa, big surprise number two! Let me think that one over.”

“Okay….while I’m waiting, we should call Mick to come out.”

“Maybe Mick will bump into her. A thrill a minute for him.”

We sat on the curb and studied the October sky, our breath creating little clouds. The stars were having their own quiet party. We were just spectators. I sang a tune I’d heard the band play. Janna rested her head on my shoulder, where it belonged. I thought: that’s a “yes”.

The Watchman

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Heaven Steele hung the windsock at the back of her house, near the fence that enclosed her courtyard. Right where Jasper Dye could see it. It flapped and spun in the hot breeze. The placement had been his idea. She walked up the hill and offered it to him last month. She thought it would liven up his house a bit, she said. She preferred the many handmade wind chimes that called out from her eaves. Most of those hung in the front, one big one in back by the driveway like an announcement. Jasper liked the mix of brittle and sweet notes that kept him company. He told her he’d see the windsock better from his porch. He liked seeing it whip in the wind but thought how funny she did that for him. He didn’t like being indebted, either.

He had grown used to the woman’s strangeness. She wasn’t like most people in Marionville. She was much younger than she first appeared as she had silvery, cropped hair. It was a fact that she was industrious (that she had in common with the others), operating an art studio where she made hundreds of glass chimes year-round. Her other business had to do with desperate folks who showed up at her door all hours of day and night. Counseling, he had heard, but he knew better. Maybe a witch–did they even exist these days, in real life? He shivered. She had one nearly violet eye and one brown. That made her somebody outside of the usual box but he didn’t know quite what. He could see a few goings-on from his porch, although his ratty–he admitted it–farm overlooked the back of Heaven’s modern house. He hadn’t crossed that threshold yet, saw no need. It had to have things in there he couldn’t decipher. The fall was a warning, anyway. He had been trying to get a good look at the girl who was pounding on Heaven’s window when he’d slipped in mud and tripped over a root or rock. Maybe he knew her, was what he was thinking. Drat his curiosity. Now he had a thick cast on his right arm and nasty bruises up and down his leg and side that still hurt. He felt half-helpless although it could be worse at his age. “Jasper’s Downfall” his son, Shawn, said laughing at him when he came by and helped out.

So now Jasper really had little better to do than watch plumes of dust stirred by the rare car that sped by and Heaven’s comings and goings. He wondered if she knew he could see her in part of the spacious courtyard. Tree branches overhung more than half of it. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to have a water feature; the sound of a waterfall slipped in and out of his hearing range.  That’s where she met with people if the weather was nice and it had been. All he usually saw was someone’s head or a flash of one of her bright dresses between the leafy branches. When the wind was still and the road empty, a murmur of voices would drift up to him. He felt a peculiar contentment knowing she was there. Had been for over ten years. Yet all Jasper knew about her were rumors of her unusual talents (Shawn said she was also psychic, she advised people on things), the beautiful chimes, and her odd, lovely eyes. She had been friendly enough the few times they had crossed paths. But he didn’t like talking much and she wasn’t nosey. Like him. It worked out well enough.

On the third Thursday of the month Shawn had picked up two prescriptions for him, made them both burgers, then cleaned up and left. Jasper sat on the porch drinking coffee, having rolled the same lumpy cigarette three times before he got it right. He needed one of those machines. It was almost dusk, the light rich and soft on  trees and grasses. The air had a sheerness to it that said it was summer. Everything sparked with color. Jasper lit the cigarette as his gaze ran over the scene before him, resting briefly on Heaven’s darkening house. The lively windsock settled down as though tired. There was a silver car parked in the long driveway. It wasn’t familiar but, then, lots of cars parked at her house, especially since the summer season had started.

Heaven got people from all over wanting to see how she made those wind chimes, he’d heard, and they always bought some from what he could see. He smoked as Heaven walked into the courtyard and back again, talking to someone, hands gesturing. There was a guy a lot taller than she was. Jasper leaned forward, straining to hear something, a word, a tone of voice. The man stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. She stood still and became silent. Jasper re-lit a last half of another cigarette. Well, this wasn’t his business, he thought, she had herself quite a life made in Marionville, while he was restless and getting old and bored with things, that’s all. The glowing stub faded and he crushed it in a ceramic pot with stones in the bottom. Rubbing his eyes and wincing at the sharp ache in his left hip, he stood. He looked out over the valley. The lake had a soft sheen to it still. He imagined the kids on Lake Minnatchee had gone home now and teenagers would be taking their place when darkness snuffed out a coral and rose sunset. They would be up to no good or romance. Jasper felt something close to peace but melancholy sneaked in as usual.

He turned to go inside with a last glance at Heaven’s house. The silver car was still there. There was no sound or movement coming from the courtyard other than the faintest tinkling of water. He frowned. Something had changed in the last five minutes. So they had left the courtyard, no big deal. But something else. Unease coursed through his legs. A stab of pain made him reach to his hip and rub it hard. He rocked forward to change his weight distribution and scanned the house again. It was the windsock. It wasn’t there now. The air was still; no gusts had swept over their hillside. The windows in her house were grayed out; even the courtyard’s rainbow lights usually lit at dusk were still off. He swallowed a walnut-sized lump in his throat and started down the pathway to the road and Heaven’s place.

It seemed like slow going, half because Jasper didn’t want o feel he had to hurry for anything and half because he didn’t want to trip and tumble into a twilight road. When he inched his way down and crossed the road, he noted the car was a Porsche, then walked around to the high courtyard fence. There was the windsock, on the ground. He couldn’t quite reach the hook from which it had hung so stuffed it into his pocket.

“Jasper.” It was Heaven whispering to him, more a hiss than a whole word.

“Yep, it’s me,” he whispered back but couldn’t find where she was.

“Here, the window,” she said softly.

Jasper moved three feet to his left and saw her face in the screen. He felt bashful, a little embarrassed to be there at her window, and almost backed away.

“Don’t go. I have an issue. I need a little help.”

“What?”

“There’s a man, a guy who came hoping to talk to his dead wife…I don’t do that kind of stuff….but he’s drunk. I can’t get him off my rocking chair in the courtyard and that’s where my cell phone is. I need to call a cop or a cab or something. The phone was tossed on that chair and it’s under him…I stood on the garden bench and pulled off the windsock, hoping you’d see. Well, that you would understand. Which, of course and thankfully, you did.”

Jasper really looked at her for the first time. Her eyes implored him  yet sweetly through the scrim of falling darkness. Those eyes were two beautiful magnets; he couldn’t stop himself from staring.

“Jasper.” She pressed her nose and lips against the screen and her face flattened comically. “Can you either come in or call the police?”

Jasper started, shook his head to clear it, then walked briskly around the front of the house, past her glinting, swaying chimes, up to the door. Walked right in. He knew to turn left to find the courtyard; Heaven met up with him. The man was indeed drunk. He was slumped over in the rocking chair, drooling and reeking of something expensive. Jasper raised his bushy eyebrows and shrugged, pointing to his cast. And he knew about wives dying and wanting to hear from them. It had never occurred to him to do anything but have his own conversations with her. Apparently Heaven had a big reputation.

Jasper did the easy thing. He called a cab and waited at the door while Heaven sat in the courtyard keeping tabs. Then he and the driver wrestled the weeping man to his feet and got him out of the house and into the cab. He would have to get his Porsche tomorrow.

He and Heaven stood on the road and watched the car disappear into a disappearing cave of blackness. He felt wide awake and surprised at himself.

“That about it, then?” he asked her.

She took his good arm and steered him toward her house. She smelled familiar and good, like the lilies of the valley that grew back of his house.

“Let’s have my good tea with strawberry pie.”

He didn’t resist. Nothing too crazy had happened yet. “How did you know I’d see the windsock was gone?”

“I’ve got my eye on you, Jasper Dye.” She squeezed his arm and it wasn’t unpleasant.

“Is that right?” He smiled despite himself.

“I saw your cigarette smoke. But I know you watch me, too.”

“Hmm…” he said as he crossed her threshold a second time.

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